Busted! Why 'Real Housewives' star got prison time

In the last month, the headlines have been filled with stories of reality TV stars being criminally prosecuted, from Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino of "Jersey Shore" fame to "Real Housewives of New Jersey" star Teresa Giudice.

Teresa and Giuseppe "Joe" Giudice hold hands as they arrive at U.S. federal court in Newark, New Jersey, Oct. 2, 2014.
Mike Segar | Reuters
Teresa and Giuseppe "Joe" Giudice hold hands as they arrive at U.S. federal court in Newark, New Jersey, Oct. 2, 2014.

Why do so many reality stars end up the target of federal prosecution? Fame, money & buffoonery. Today's reality television stars often are publicity-hungry strivers who are not prepared for the consequences of their newfound fame.

Becoming a reality star can lead to enormous wealth. Fame creates cultural capital that often can be turned into cash. When The Situation was indicted, one of the most common reactions was, "Wait, that guy has made $8.9 million since 2010?"

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The wealth and fame is often followed by federal scrutiny. A reality star wears a big target because federal prosecutors are often looking for high-profile targets for prosecution — particularly for tax prosecution. Because the IRS wants audits to get the most "bang for the buck," prosecutions are designed to garner attention in order to encourage voluntary compliance from the general public. Tax prosecutions are often announced immediately before the April 15 tax-filing deadline. Prosecuting reality stars virtually guarantees headlines that re-enforce the obligation to pay income taxes in full. Similarly, sports stars like Pete Rose and Darryl Strawberry were convicted of federal tax fraud for failure to declare their income from memorabilia sales.

How did they get caught?

According to his indictment, Sorrentino committed incredibly clumsy tax fraud. He simply failed to declare income for nightclub appearances for which he was paid up to $48,000 in cash. He claimed business deductions for personal items like luxury cars, clothing and cash distributions to himself. He didn't even bother to file a tax return for the calendar year 2011, when he earned nearly $2 million. If convicted on all seven counts in the indictment, Sorrentino likely would have to serve more than five years in prison, according to the federal sentencing guidelines. (The maximum penalty for his offenses would be over 60 years.)

Teresa Giudice was sentenced last week to 15 months imprisonment for her role in bankruptcy fraud, mail fraud and wire fraud for submitting fraudulent financial statements to banks and the bankruptcy court. Her initial defense was that she did not know that the documents she signed were false, because her husband, Giuseppe, handled all of the family finances. When she pled guilty, Teresa admitted that she knew that at least some of the statements were fraudulent.

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Even after her guilty plea, Teresa had a chance of avoiding prison. Giuseppe admitted at his sentencing that he was the instigator of the criminal activity and that his wife, at worst, went along with his crimes. Judge Esther Salas, a former assistant federal public defender who had frequently sought leniency for her clients in similar situations (Disclosure: I frequently litigated cases against Salas when I was an assistant U.S. attorney), admitted at sentencing that she had sympathy for Teresa's plight. She acknowledged that Teresa was a good mother who had shown genuine remorse. Judge Salas stated that she strongly considered departing from the recommended sentence of 21 to 27 months to mere probation, but she ultimately decided that Teresa must serve jail time because (1) she and Giuseppe had failed to accurately report their assets for their pre-sentence report and (2) given the widespread news coverage of the case, the general public needed to know that financial fraud would be punished by imprisonment.

Joe is likely to be deported after prison

One of the factors that Judge Salas took into consideration in sentencing Teresa Giudice is the near-certainty that her husband is going to be deported to Italy after he completes his 41-month sentence. Giuseppe was brought to the United States by his parents as a 1-year old child, has long held a green card as a lawful permanent resident and had a right to become a citizen at any time before his prosecution. Had Giuseppe taken the step of becoming a citizen, there would be nothing the United States could do to deport him. Instead, because he failed to apply for citizenship before his conviction, there is nothing that Giuseppe can do to avoid deportation, because his conviction for fraud exceeding $10,000 constitutes an "aggravated felony" requiring deportation.

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When I was an AUSA, I often saw defendants who had fallen into this situation. They were brought to the United States as a child, legally, and became green-card holders. Although they could have applied for citizenship at any time, they elected not to - either (1) because their family did not want to pay the citizenship filing fee or (2) out of a sense of allegiance to their home country. This is the height of folly, which I have seen have tragic consequences dozens of times.

Once a person is convicted of an aggravated felony, deportation is automatic after the sentence is served. It does not matter that the person has not lived in the home country for decades, does not speak the language or has no family in that country. There are virtually no circumstances that would allow an immigration judge to overturn the deportation order.

So, Teresa Giudice faces two unpleasant possibilities at the end of her husband's incarceration. Either she is going to raise her children on her own in the United States OR she is going to pack up her entire family to Italy, where her hard-won fame will disappear.

Commentary by Mitchell Epner, an attorney specializing in white-collar crime, sports and entertainment law and intellectual property. He's also a former Assistant United States Attorney in the District of New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellepner.